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As first-graders spilled into Amy Modrich's classroom, they marveled at masks set out on desks, picking them up and eagerly asking what they were going to do in class that day. Modrich called the students to a round table, where she introduced the art lesson by pointing out where Africa was on the map.
Modrich's first-grade art class is part of Los Robles Dual Immersion Magnet Academy, one of three schools in East Palo Alto that implement Art in Action's lessons with the support of a grant through the Palo Alto Weekly's Holiday Fund.
The Weekly, which has been supporting Art in Action's initiatives since 2004, awarded the nonprofit a $5,000 grant this past year, which went toward facilitating Art in Action's year-long lessons and curriculum at Los Robles, East Palo Alto Charter School and Costaño Elementary School. Currently, Art in Action -- a national nonprofit headquartered in Menlo Park -- is in 40 classrooms that serve around 1,300 students in East Palo Alto alone.
Modrich's is one of those classrooms. Before the students arrived, she sat at a table reviewing the Art in Action lesson for the day on her laptop. The Art in Action online platform walks teachers through lessons and includes tips for how to adapt and integrate the various lessons.
As she talked, she set out a map of the world on one table and placed decorative Haitian masks around the room. She explained that she had brought the masks herself because they went with the lesson, in which students would be making African masks. She also brought examples of African artwork she's collected from her travels. She said she was excited to see the students' reactions.
"All kids love art -- it's natural -- it doesn't matter where you come from or what your demographic is," she said.
The lesson was grounded in more than just making masks -- it was also about exploring and understanding geography and culture in an authentic, relevant and engaging way.
"Art is everywhere," Modrich said to the class during the lesson. "There are different kinds of art because there are different kinds of people."
The idea that art is everywhere resonates with Art in Action's mission to integrate art into the classroom -- even incorporating it into science and math lessons. This past year, Art in Action participated in a study through the Department of Education at Stanford University and the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, which indicated that art has a positive impact on math and reading proficiency.
"There's a connection between art in terms of critical thinking and design thinking that actually increase those proficiency levels and test scores, and that's a fact," said Ken Toren, interim executive director at Art in Action, adding that it was all the more exciting to see STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) efforts in schools.
"The notion of being visual is a critical component to education today," he said.
Art in Action's lessons are designed around themes that touch on varying aspects of art history. The group offers year-long curriculum for kindergarten through sixth grade that builds on itself. As part of this subscription, Art in Action ships the lesson materials to schools and relies on volunteers and businesses to help assemble and ship the boxes.
The group also trains teachers and parents to teach the lessons, said Mara Grimes, development manager at Art in Action. In the case of East Palo Alto schools, the nonprofit used grant money to hire a designated art coordinator, who works with the schools to teach Art in Action in the classrooms.
"What we found out is that we could give this program to schools ... and sometimes they would teach it and sometimes they wouldn't because they just didn't have the resources to make that happen," Grimes said.
"So, a few years ago we realized that what they really needed was what we call an art coordinator," she said. "That's a person who goes into the schools and teaches them how to teach it and works with their volunteers and helps organize materials and helps them set up scheduling."
As East Palo Alto's art coordinator, Victoria Lau noted that teachers have appreciated how easy Art in Action's lessons were to integrate in the classroom, especially given their alignment with the Common Core standards. On a personal note, though, she said that she appreciates the rapport that she builds with teachers and students.
"One of the things I really love about seeing it in a work capacity, but also in a personal capacity, is when kids see me on the playground (for example), they'll say 'Oh, Mrs. Lau, when are you coming to teach?'" she said.
At the end of the class, Modrich's room of first-graders were so immersed in their mask-making that they didn't want to leave their seats. Modrich assured them they would be revisiting masks and many other interesting topics throughout the year -- a comment that left the kids visibly, and audibly, excited.